Blogging Doesn't Have to Be a Career

Last week, I gave my evangelical talk about science blogging to the Physics department at Wright State, and also a lot of education students who came to the talk (which made a nice change in the sort of questions I got). It's basically this talk that I gave at Cornell a couple of years ago, with a few updates to the slides that don't require a new upload to SlideShare:

The pitch that I make, if you don't want to flip through the slides, is that communicating to a broad public really ought to be seen as part of the job of a scientist, and that social media provide a relatively easy way to do that, reaching a world-wide audience with very little effort. Blogs and other social media platforms can also provide a way to hone communications skills, giving scientists practice at writing (or cartooning, or video-making, or composing 140-character haiku) for a broad audience. This can serve as a springboard for other activities for those who find they like doing whatever it is.

Over in SciAm Land, Bora has a tutorial-slash-manifesto about using social media to break into science writing. I'm sort of torn about this, because on the one hand, it's picking up the "career springboard" aspect of what I talk up-- and which has worked out very well for me-- but on the other hand, it's yet another step in the ongoing professionalization of blogging.

And again, I'm ambivalent about this-- on the one hand, as blogs have become a step on a path to a career as a science writer, the average quality of blogs has gone up quite a bit. Good writers are more likely to start blogs, and people who blog are more likely to pay attention to the quality of their writing. There's more good stuff out there to read than ever before.

But on the other hand-- and there's always another hand, it's like a museum of South Asian religious art around here-- I worry that the professionalization of the hobby is squeezing out the, well, hobbyists. One of the things I try to stress is that blogging is a low-maintenance activity-- it can be done on a strictly hobby-type basis, by people who do not have and do not necessarily want careers in science writing. Blogging doesn't have to be a career.

Why does this matter? Well, because what I think gets lost in the shift to social media as a career step is the occasional blog by working scientists. I think those sites-- in physics, the best examples are probably Doug Natelson's Nanoscale Views, Sean Carroll's Preposterous Universe and Sean's previous home, Cosmic Variance. These are sites that can go a long time without being updated-- the last Cosmic Variance post was two months ago-- but when they do post, they bring a valuable perspective.

I would like to see more of this kind of blogging, and think that the failure of social media to really catch on among the working-scientist crowd is probably my biggest disappointment regarding the way the field has evolved. This is, I think, exacerbated by the professionalization of the hobby-- people with more traditional careers in science see the way that top blogs are run, and think that it requires becoming a science writer in all but name, and don't want to put in the time. Which deprives us of a lot of potentially interesting voices.

Now, of course, I'm not without culpability in this-- while I have a traditional science job, I've shifted most of my professional activity to blogging/ writing kinds of activities. So, as much as I tlak about blogs as a flexible hobby-type time committment, I probably look like a cautionary example to a lot of early-career scientists looking at what I do. But this is, to a large degree, a matter of choice-- I've moved in this direction because I enjoyed what I was doing, and that provided new opportunities, etc. It's not like I was forced to do this once my blog passed some threshold number of page views. Sean and Doug are good counter-examples in this regard-- they're both active researchers first, and bloggers second. And that's important for people to see as an option.

In some sense, of course, this is a problem that could be improved by a kind of professionalization of blogging, in that people would be more likely to do it if there were a way to get professional credit for it. And that's an area where I think, ironically, the kind of professionalization we've gotten has not necessarily been to blogging's advantage. That is, while blogging has become more of a path to publication in the sort of outlets you can cite for (limited) professional credit, it's also become a path that lots and lots of people are trying to follow, making it harder to get down. If you're a scientist with a blog, you're not easily going to turn blog posts into magazine articles, because there are a dozen people who want to write magazine articles for a living working on using blog posts to do just that. What I'd like to see is more credit for blogging in and of itself, but it's not clear that that's going anywhere fast-- in principle, I suppose, "The PI maintains a popular science blog" counts toward the "Broader Impact" requirement for NSF grants, but I remain unconvinced that those actually count for much (largely because I've seen a lot of NSF proposals in the last few years, and I can count on the fingers of a bad shop teacher's hand the number of them that weren't half-assed).

So, anyway, before this turns more rambling than it already is, let me just hit the main point one more time, and get out: Blogging doesn't have to be a career, or a step on the way to one. You're not actually required to post 3-5 articles every day, and write in a way that you can leverage into a glamorous career as a professional freelance journalist (and, it should be noted, Bora's post that kicked this off doesn't say that you have to do any of those things-- in fact, he strongly urges would-be bloggers to write outside the narrow journalistic format). It can absolutely be done on an intermittent hobby basis. If it turns out to be something you really like doing, then it can open doors to other sorts of careers and activities, but there's nothing forcing you to go through any of those doors if you don't want to.

So, if you're a scientist thinking about dipping a toe into the social-media waters, don't be afraid that it's a sucking quagmire that will eat your career. Go ahead and try it out, and see what you think. Worst case, you find you don't like it, and abandon your blog/ Twitter account/ Tumblr/ whatever the Next Big Thing is, and get on with the rest of your regular career.

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Funny. Some years ago scientists were afraid that blogging might make them appear unprofessional. Now you feel the need to write a blogpost saying that it's okay to be unprofessional...

Ach. What I meant is "Now you feel the need to write a blogpost saying that it's okay to be an unprofessional *blogger*"

Yeah, there's definitely some irony in this whole thing...

It's a tricky problem to strike the balance between professional-enough-to-be-worthwhile and not-a-different-career-track. Which is itself probably a subset of the intractable problem of getting scientists to care about talking to a wider audience as a general matter.

I've been seeing an awful lot of blogs-as-a-path-to-journalism stuff lately, though. Possibly because going to Science Online brought me in contact with a lot more professional science communication types. Possibly because I'm kind of conflicted at the moment about the weird place my own career is in. Or some linear superposition of the two.

I absolutely agree. My post was specifically for people who want to become professional writers (which the SA Incubator blog is all about), how to use blogs and social media to achieve that specific goal. But of course, blog is software, and there are many other reasons to use one, including by researchers for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with leaving academia and becoming writers for pay.

By Bora Zivkovic (not verified) on 04 Apr 2013 #permalink

I'm an active research mathematician. I also blog, about once a month maybe if I have time. It's all good and well to say that "communicating to a broad public really ought to be seen as part of the job of a scientist," but I would qualify it by saying that maybe not every scientist has to do every part of the job. For most of us, our plates are more than full already - not just in terms of the amount of workload, but also the diversity of it, each part requiring a different set of skills and qualifications.

We're supposed to do research, of course. Academic teaching is undergoing what I could call "professionalization" for lack of a better terms. We can no longer be just amateurs who know the stuff and teach it as best we can - we're told to read up on teaching techniques, education research, inverted classrooms, technology, and to learn to implement all that in practice. There's administration and directing junior personnel (grads, postdocs). There's peer review and editorships of journals. We write research papers, grant proposals, textbooks, expository works for different types of audiences - each is a different genre, really. I could go on like that for some time.

I'd love to try to explain my research to the general public. But in practice, if I really wanted to do a good job at that, it would have to involve a series of lengthy and well thought-out blog posts over a few months. I'll do it as soon as I get a teaching release for this purpose. In the meantime, there's a lot of people out there who are knowledgeable about math and science, write well, are willing to commit to a career in writing, and need to make a living. Given this state of things, I'm totally happy to outsource that part of the job to them while I'm busy doing the rest of it.

By Izabella Laba (not verified) on 04 Apr 2013 #permalink

I’m an active research mathematician. I also blog, about once a month maybe if I have time. It’s all good and well to say that “communicating to a broad public really ought to be seen as part of the job of a scientist,” but I would qualify it by saying that maybe not every scientist has to do every part of the job.

Yes, I would absolutely agree with this. Some people will be better at talking to a broad audience than others, and those individuals should carry more of the outreach effort than those who are less well suited to it.

I probably should've said "job of scientists" rather than "job of a scientist" there; I was trying to bang this out quickly before working on the book-in-progress. Talking to the general public is something that scientists as a group need to be better about, and that doesn't necessarily mean that every scientist needs to try to do it. I'd settle for the community as a whole doing more to acknowledge and reward the efforts of those who choose to do significant amounts of outreach.

"But on the other hand– and there’s always another hand, it’s like a museum of South Asian religious art around here–"

I am stealing that line. It's spit-take good.

By David Aronson (not verified) on 04 Apr 2013 #permalink

"I’d love to try to explain my research to the general public. But in practice, if I really wanted to do a good job at that, it would have to involve a series of lengthy and well thought-out blog posts over a few months."

I've done that - in my spare time - and have very much enjoyed the experience. Feedback from lay readers tells me they appreciate the work I put into it.

And it is work to do it well, no doubt about that.



By Susan Crockford (not verified) on 11 Apr 2013 #permalink

Science blogging does not have to be a career and I do think that scientist as a profession should integrate some responsibility in public communication of science. But if scientists choose to blog, they do need to be aware of the potential impact they might have on public attitudes and scientific literacy by doing so (e.g. have some understanding of the communication processes at play)

By Dominique Brossard (not verified) on 11 Apr 2013 #permalink

Intriguing blog, Chad, thank you. I have come to love blogging. I don't fit quite into either group, or rather I fit into both -- scientist and science writer. Most of my income is from my textbooks. I use my blog to make connections that no one else sees, or to write about research that doesn't make it to Eurekalert and that doesn't trickle into news coverage. I love to scroll tables of contents of the genetics/genomics journals and find the things that are ignored, like the 2 blogs I posted yesterday. Plenty of material. Yes, I think it is not quite fair that I do not get paid for blogging -- back in the 1980s and 1990s we generally got $1 a word, minimum -- but I appreciate a place to write beyond what I can put into a textbook. BUT .. i find that the freedom of blogging and being my own boss for my books has somewhat compromised my ability to work with editors. I'm having a hard time at what once came so easily.

By Ricki Lewis (not verified) on 12 Apr 2013 #permalink

Interesting discussion. I'm a recently retired scientist who decided to try blogging about five years before retiring. As a scientist who loves to write, blogging was a natural for me, and I also saw it as a way after retirement to continue being involved and participate in training the next generation of scientists, but on a much larger scale than a classroom.

I think blogging is potentially a great activity for retired scientists. We have a lot of knowledge and career experience to share and the time to write thoughtful essays.

I can understand the reluctance of active researchers to blog or participate in outreach when they do not really get any credit for it. I was similarly reluctant....until I tried it. I now host three blogs, including one focused on science videography and another on general skills and concerns facing scientists, particularly women.

Besides retirees, students and early career scientists are the other groups that can greatly benefit from blogging. I give presentations to students in which I provide compelling reasons how such activities can help their careers....even if those efforts don't count directly toward tenure. I point out how having a strong online profile is increasingly important, and a blog can contribute to that, showing prospective employers their skills at explaining science to broad audiences, for example. In addition, writing a science blog provides students practice writing concisely and regularly and also broadens their general knowledge of their field ...skills that come in handy when they write and defend their thesis or dissertation or later when they write grant proposals.

By the way, I think that scientist bloggers have a huge advantage over professional bloggers or science journalists. We have in depth knowledge of our subject and understand it on a level that a journalist never can. Also, we can write about science topics and science careers from a first-hand perspective, putting a human face on the science.....something a science reporter can never do as effectively. However, we have to understand how to communicate with non-specialist audiences and use media they prefer (e.g., video), which the communication specialist is formally trained to do.

By Karen McKee (not verified) on 12 Apr 2013 #permalink

I agree more scientists should blog.
I am an active scientist and write a blog related to my research
It is not aimed at the general public but scientists interested in emergent phenomena in condensed phases of matter.
I post about 5 times per week.
I have no aspirations to become a science writer. I explain why I keep doing it in this post:…

By Ross McKenzie (not verified) on 15 Apr 2013 #permalink